Cover Image

Larger ImageView Larger

Disrupted Lives

How People Create Meaning in a Chaotic World

Gay Becker (Author)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 275 pages
ISBN: 9780520209145
September 1999
$31.95, £23.95
Our lives are full of disruptions, from the minor—a flat tire, an unexpected phone call—to the fateful—a diagnosis of infertility, an illness, the death of a loved one. In the first book to examine disruption in American life from a cultural rather than a psychological perspective, Gay Becker follows hundreds of people to find out what they do after something unexpected occurs. Starting with bodily distress, she shows how individuals recount experiences of disruption metaphorically, drawing on important cultural themes to help them reestablish order and continuity in their lives. Through vivid and poignant stories of people from different walks of life who experience different types of disruptions, Becker examines how people rework their ideas about themselves and their worlds, from the meaning of disruption to the meaning of life itself.

Becker maintains that to understand disruption, we must also understand cultural definitions of normalcy. She questions what is normal for a family, for health, for womanhood and manhood, and for growing older. In the United States, where life is expected to be orderly and predictable, disruptions are particularly unsettling, she contends. And, while continuity in life is an illusion, it is an effective one because it organizes people's plans and expectations.

Becker's phenomenological approach yields a rich, compelling, and entirely original narrative. Disrupted Lives acknowledges the central place of discontinuity in our existence at the same time as it breaks new ground in understanding the cultural dynamics that underpin life in the United States.

FROM THE BOOK:"The doctor was blunt. He does not mince words. He did a [semen] analysis and he came back and said, 'This is devastatingly poor.' I didn't expect to hear that. It had never occurred to me. It was such a shock to my sense of self and to all these preconceptions of my manliness and virility and all of that. That was a very, very devastating moment and I was dumbfounded. . . . In that moment it totally changed the way that I thought of myself."
Gay Becker is Professor in Residence in Social and Behavioral Sciences and Medical Anthropology at the University of California, San Francisco. Her previous books include Growing Old in Silence (California, 1980) and Healing the Infertile Family (California paperback, 1997).
"A fine account of experiences of suffering in everyday America understood as occasions for making meaning."—Arthur Kleinman, co-editor of Social Suffering

"An original and compassionate contribution to the study of human suffering. It describes how people try to make sense of lives disrupted, and often fragmented, by major crises: stroke, illness, migration, miscarriage or infertility. Her descriptions of the narratives and metaphors they use to try to restore the coherence of their world-view and relationships is both vivid and readable."—Cecil G. Helman, author of Culture, Health and Illness

"Using the methods and perspectives of cultural phenomenology, and narrative analysis, this powerful and moving work brings new meanings and understandings to the disruptions, personal distresses, and emotional crises that occur in daily life. Disruptions and chaos are part of the human condition. Gay Becker brilliantly shows how ordinary people address this fact of life."—Norman Denzin, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

"A remarkable, creative synthesis of up-to-the-minute theories of symbolic healing and narrative performance by one of contemporary medical anthropology's most prolific and sophisticated practitioners. Gay Becker presents many poignant and unforgettable cases from major ethnographic studies conducted by herself and her colleagues in the United States on topics including: adaptation to stroke, meanings of infertility, management of disruptions such as divorce in mid-life, transitions of the elderly to assisted living, and multi-ethnic experiences of illness in the health care system. Becker is a master of life history and life story methods. Her analyses are impeccably grounded in first-class ethnographic research to produce a mature and exciting work that will be read widely across many disciplines."—Gelya Frank, University of Southern California

"Though ours is an age of dislocation and uprootedness, the issue of how human beings negotiate the stony ground between past and present lives transcends historical and cultural boundaries. In this illuminating and far-reaching study of disrupted lives, Gay Becker explores in a variety of critical contemporary settings the interplay between what people suffer and what they make of their suffering. Giving voice to the people with whom she worked, and sensitive to the embodied and dialogic dimensions of human agency, Becker shows how people variously deploy cultural resources such as metaphor and narrative to cope with adversity, recover a semblance of order and continuity, and actively regain a sense of self-determination."—Michael Jackson, University of Sydney

Join UC Press

Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more